Will Hawkes: Afridi and Co show how potency of spin curbs T20 batsmen

County Focus
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Given all the fuss getting him over here, it is just as well that Shahid Afridi has excelled. It was unclear at one point as to whether the Pakistani all-rounder would pull on a Hampshire shirt this season, but his falling-out with the Pakistan Cricket Board does not appear to have affected his game. In just five Friends Life Twenty20 matches, Afridi has taken more wickets (13) with his leg-spin than any of his team-mates at a far better economy rate (4.55). He's trouble, clearly, but mostly for the opposition batsmen.

In that respect, though, he's not alone at Hampshire. The reigning Twenty20 cup holders – who have lost just once this season – can boast three high-quality spinners: Afridi, the returning Imran Tahir, and the club's top wicket-taker last year (with 31), the home-grown slow left-armer Danny Briggs. The Royals appear to have calculated, quite correctly, that three golden arms are better than one.

And none has so far proved more golden than Afridi's. The 31-year-old's home debut – against Gloucestershire, on 25 June – saw him take five wickets but it's in recent matches that the club's spin attack has really demonstrated its potency. Against Sussex a week last Monday, the trio took seven wickets between them as a batting line-up heavy on international talent collapsed in a heap, all out for 91. Three days later Kent arrived at the Rose Bowl and were out for even fewer, 72, although the spinners accounted for just four of the wickets.

Hampshire, of course, are not the only county to rely heavily on spin. Since Twenty20 emerged in 2003, it has become increasingly clear that a game that seemed heaven-sent for big-hitting batsmen can actually be as much of a showcase for the cleverer slow bowlers. This is as true in the Indian Premier League as it has been in England: the 2011 edition of the IPL saw off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, of Royal Challengers Bangalore, take 20 wickets while the Chennai Super Kings' leg-spinner Amit Mishra managed one fewer.

Why have spinners proved so useful in Twenty20? A number of reasons, but key among them is that they know exactly what most batsmen are looking to do – attack. Those tweakers who are able to call on more guile and variation than the average bear can use this situation to their advantage, even if they are not big turners of the ball. Spinners who can vary their pace – which might often mean bowling fast "darts", in the style of England's Twenty20 World Cup winner Mike Yardy – and who can beat the batsman in the flight have thrived in this form of the game, where batsmen have to attack from the word go.

A good example of that is Tim Phillips, the Essex slow left-armer. Phillips is the competition's highest wicket-taker this season, with 26, which is somewhat at odds with an average of almost 47 in the four-day game. But his ability to think on his feet, mix it up and deceive batsmen in the flight has paid dividends. Intelligence, not extravagant turn, is the key in Twenty20.

Which makes Muttiah Muralitharan's failure to make a big impact on a young Gloucestershire team something of a surprise. Perhaps it's just that Murali's magic is beginning to wane, although the figures suggest that he's not doing too badly (he's still taken 11 wickets at an average of 22.90): it's just his team-mates are letting him down.

Afridi, as yet, has not let anyone down at the Rose Bowl. Tonight it's Essex in the firing line, meaning a shoot-out between the competition's most successful bowler – Phillips – and the league's most potent spin attack. The Essex man, for all his recent success, might find himself outgunned down on the South Coast.

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